10/30/2014 07:53 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

First Nighter: Stoppard's 'Real Thing,' McNally's 'Lips Together, Teeth Apart'

When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced they were consciously uncoupling, you can bet that not a single playwright saw the situation as raw material for a new work. No, sir. No, ma'am. On the evidence of plays currently swamping us, dramatists are only interested in couples coming apart with little conscience and usually in pairs having drinks or dinner together or spending weekends under the same weekend roof.

The obsession dates back to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and further, but more recently has surrounded theatergoers with Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, Theresa Rebeck's Poor Behavior, the revival of Donald Margulies's Dinner With Friends and last week's transfer from Lincoln Center to Broadway of Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced.

That's as of last week. This week we get the revivals of Tom Stoppard's somewhat autobiographical The Real Thing (1982), at the American Airlines Theatre, and Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre.

As a result, I have to confess that too much of a good thing is wearying--assuming that individually the plays are good. How often can a tolerant theater lover sit waiting for the disclosure that one member of a couple is having an affair with a member of the other couple? How often can a tolerant theater lover sit waiting for one of the couples vacationing together to suggest that perhaps they'd better scram before the weekend is over?

(Of course, it might not be so wearying for patrons whose budgets allow them to see only one or two of the offerings.)

A reviewer can reach the point where he wonders whether too many dramatists can't think of anything else to write about. More than that, a reviewer starts to wonder why playwrights aren't noticing how much they're echoing each other.

Perhaps along with Arcadia, The Real Thing remains Stoppard's best play. It's the first of his works that indicated he could mix heart in with his boundless cleverness. Marrieds Max (Josh Hamilton) and Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) come apart but only after Max appears to be wed to Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) in a kind of trompe l'oeil opening scene. That opener, you see, is part of a play written by Charlotte's husband, Henry (Ewan McGregor), who--guess what!--has been sexually liaising with Annie.

Confusing, yes, but things clear up as events proceed and Henry finds himself in a predicament uncomfortably similar to the one he scripted in his play. As more hearts are in danger of being broken, the potential heartbreakers include both an actor, Billy (the excellent Ronan Raftery) with whom Annie is appearing in a production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (yes, Stoppard intends to be ironic), and Brodie (Alex Breaux), a prisoner whom Annie has been agitating to free.

As Stoppard hints in his title, he wants to raise questions about the connections and disconnections between reality and imagination. The beauty of The Real Thing is the wit and pathos with which he achieves his end, and Stoppard achieves them despite a less than satisfying production.

The ubiquitous Sam Gold directs, and perhaps it's his crowded schedule that explains what goes wrong with this Real Thing when things do go wrong.

The chief problem is that he has the actors present their characters as terribly, teddibly arch. It's an off-putting approach that somehow renders banter of an amusing slant not very amusing at all. It's just tedious--with the result being that none of the four central figures are very likable. This is compounded by at least two of the players (Nixon, Hamilton), wrestling with their British accents. Luckily, McGregor comes by his naturally, and Gyllenhaal apparently mastered hers for the recent television series, The Honorable Woman.

David Zinn's set isn't much help, and that may also come down to what Gold wanted. Although not as dramatic as the pushed-forward design he required for his stunning Look Back in Anger revival, this one is still too uninvitingly shallow. It also is all-purpose in its representing a couple of London flats as well as the setting for Henry's play.

Riffing on Henry's professed love of pop music (Stoppard shares the affection), Gold also gets another conceit running though the action. Rather than begin the play the way Stoppard does, he has Madeline Weinstein on guitar (she also plays Henry and Charlotte's daughter Debbie) leading the others in song.

Subsequently covering various scene changes, the cast chants Top 40 ditties from the '60s like "Da Doo Ron Ron," "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling" and Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale." What these diversions add to the revival, other than demonstrating which actors have good voices and which don't, is negligible.

While Gyllenhaal with her appealingly loose delivery, and Raftery, breathing fresh sexiness into the proceedings, shine in their sequences, McGregor cops the highlight moment. He offers Stoppard's brilliant speech about making art by likening its construction to the subtly detailed manufacture of a cricket bat. Too bad Gold didn't listen to the sequence more closely.


It could be said that when it comes to the stage, the years 2013 and 2014 are McNally's. His Golden Age, And Away We Go, his outstanding Mothers and Sons, his libretto for The Visit musical (on view this summer in Williamstown), and his revised It's Only a Play have been around. And I've probably overlooked something(s).

To my way of thinking, Lips Together, Teeth Apart is right up there with his best work. Also to my way of thinking, McNally too often has trouble ending his plays, a condition that didn't afflict Mothers and Sons but does get in the way of a full appreciation of Lips Together, Teeth Apart.

The two wrangling couples here are John (Austin Lysy) and Chloe (Tracee Chimo) and Sam (Michael Chernus) and Sally (America Ferrara). Chloe and Sam happen to be sister and brother, which is a hint for anyone trying to figure out which spouses are cheating with each other.

Because Sally has inherited the Fire Island Pines getaway from her brother David, an AIDS victim, the four in-laws are spending the fourth of July trying to get along as they barbeque and test the pool on set designer Alexander Dodge's smart-looking house nestled between two residences inhabited by gay revelers.

McNally's three-act(!) 1991 play is really a slice-of-life affair. At that, it's a much larger slice than McNally needs to make his points. The major one is failure of communication. Repeatedly, he has the participants say things like "Nobody wants to listen to who we really are" and "We can never talk about these things" and "Why do people have to speak to one another?"

So with Lips Together, Teeth Apart, it's not just about knowing how to end a play that seems to end several times but knowing what fat to cut in order to emphasize the lean.

Nevertheless, the superior-behaving John, the runs-off-at-the-mouth Chloe, the discontented Sally and the well-meaning Sam are worth pulling for. They're recognizable people looking for a way to fit into a world where perhaps there's no such thing as fitting in.

Under Peter Dubois's thoroughly sympathetic direction, the actors are strong in parts McNally wrote expressly for a slightly older retinue--Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, Swoosie Kurtz and Anthony Heald. Though Lips Together, Teeth Apart keeps going longer than it needs to, Dubois and troupe make the ride enjoyable and thought-provoking.